The military situation for Ukraine’s defenders in the eastern Donbas is “extremely difficult”, the governor of the Luhansk region has said, as Russian attacks intensified in an effort to capture Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk.
Serhiy Haidai said overnight that Russia had said 568 civilians were holed up in the Azot chemical plant at Sievierodonetsk, the last site held by Ukraine’s forces in the city on the east bank of the Siverskyi Donets River.
Neighbouring Lysychansk on the west bank was being shelled “en masse”, Haidai added – while analysts warned of a nearby Russian breakthrough that meant the invaders’ forces were 4 miles (7km) south-east of the city.
Konrad Muzyka, a military analyst, said the situation in Lysychansk looked “increasingly bleak for Ukrainians” after Russians broke defence lines near the villages of Toshkivka and Ustynivka to its south.
Haidai acknowledged that “the situation along the entire Luhansk front is extremely difficult” in an earlier posting on his Telegram channel, saying Russia was launching “a large-scale offensive” using reserve forces.
Rodion Miroshnik, the ambassador to Russia of the self-proclaimed republic in Luhansk, said its forces were “moving from the south towards Lysychansk” and predicted an imminent victory. “The hours to come should bring considerable changes to the balance of forces in the area,” he said on Telegram.
Capturing Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk would hand Russia almost all Luhansk oblast, one of the two regions of the Donbas. Moscow’s goal may be to demonstrate to the west it can achieve a military victory ahead of the EU, G7 and Nato summits that follow sequentially from Thursday this week.
Previously, Volodymyr Zelenskiy had predicted Russia would step up attacks before the EU summit. Overnight he added: “Russia is very nervous about our activity,” and continued: “We are defending Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk. This whole region is the most difficult, there are the hardest battles.”
Muzyka said Ukraine should have withdrawn from Sievierodonetsk some time ago and focused on the defence of Lysychansk, which sits at a higher elevation to its near neighbour and is in theory easier to protect. But the flanking advance across the river from the south-east now threatens it.
The two sides have been engaged in an increasingly intense struggle over the past six weeks for Sievierodonetsk, with thousands of casualties. Ukraine has almost certainly suffered most in the face of a protracted artillery bombardment by the Russians that has destroyed dozens of buildings.
A key adviser to Zelenskiy’s office hinted overnight that Ukraine had launched missile strikes against three gas rigs in the Black Sea on Monday. Oleksiy Arestovych warned Russia may retaliate by striking “at the decision-making centres in Kyiv” and urged residents, particularly in central districts, not to ignore air raid sirens in the coming days.
Russian officials said on Monday that Ukraine launched missile strikes against the gas rigs in the Black Sea south of Odesa, which Kyiv believes are used for military reconnaissance and to control more of the body of water.
Seven people were missing and three injured after the strikes, the head of occupied Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, said on Monday. One of the platforms hit remained on fire, a Russian politician told the RIA Novosti news agency on Tuesday and flames were still being detected by Nasa’s fire information platform in the area.
The three offshore platforms, the Boyko towers, were seized by Moscow from Ukraine in 2014. Ukrainian sources say they are not used for extracting gas, although Russia said the opposite and RIA Novosti reported the fire had spread to the well on the worst-affected platform.
Vladimir Putin on Tuesday said that Russia will further strengthen its armed forces as a result of “potential military threats” in a speech to a group of graduates of Russian military academies.
“We will continue to develop and strengthen our armed forces, taking into account potential military threats and risks,” he said. Putin added that the Russian army is being supplied with the S-500 surface-to-air missile system and said that Russia will this year deploy the newly tested Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missiles, capable of more than 10 nuclear warheads.
Russia’s defence ministry said Russian television was now broadcasting across the entire occupied Kherson region in the south, captured by the invaders in the first week of the war.
It is the latest step in a forced Russification of the occupied areas of Ukraine, where Russia has tried to issue passports, introduce the rouble, ask teachers to switch curriculums, and other measures.
Two US volunteer soldiers captured in fighting north of Kharkiv a fortnight ago have been filmed by Russian television at a detention facility in the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, some distance from where they were taken.
Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, both from Alabama, had been fighting as part of the Ukrainian army. The US state department said it was aware of the film and was “closely monitoring”.
The Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said in an interview released by NBC News that the men “should be held responsible for those crimes that they have committed” and were not covered by the Geneva conventions protecting prisoners of war.
Three other foreign fighters, the Britons Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner and the Moroccan Brahim Saadoun, were sentenced to death by a court in Donetsk earlier this month, although they have time to appeal. Russia does not carry out the death penalty but the separatist republic, unrecognised by the west, does.